Composing and Motherhood
Though my commitment to composing is as strong as ever, I’m starting to understand some of the ways that composers who are mothers intentionally and unintentionally get written out of new music.
When I started composing, as an 18 year old in 1990, I knew of few women composers. Those I did know of either had their careers curtailed when they had kids (Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler, Ruth Crawford Seeger), or they didn’t have kids (Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, and the few women composers I knew personally). I thought I might want to have kids one day, and it was scary going into a field in which I knew no role models. But I needed to compose, and any possible kids were a long way off. Certainly I encountered occasional sexism as a student and young composer, but mostly I received great encouragement. My way of participating in the new music world was no different from that of my male contemporaries. I studied, I went to music festivals, I lived abroad, I went to artist residencies, and most of all, I went to lots of concerts, met people, and talked about music late into the night, hatching plans for new musical projects and adventures. It’s 2017 and I’m now a mother myself (kids born in 2012 and 2015), and though my commitment to composing is as strong as ever, I’m starting to understand some of the ways that composers who are mothers intentionally and unintentionally get written out of new music.
Though not all women become mothers, all women may find themselves affected by anti-mother bias. It’s still shockingly common to hear of women composers being passed over for positions because it is assumed that they’ll get married, have kids, and give up composing, or of mentors refusing to write letters of recommendation for female students until they know their reproductive plans. The difficulties associated with being a composer and a mother are, of course, compounded once children actually come into the picture! Finding enough time to compose while earning enough to pay for childcare—in such an underpaid field as composition—is impossible for many, and grants seldom come with funding for childcare. (I just applied for a grant in which the maximum allowable monthly subsistence rate is 30% less than we pay our babysitter per month.) Attending evening concerts—so important, both for musical nourishment and for networking—is difficult, and new music concerts are even more likely than others to start late at night. Residencies are often offered in increments of one month, a prohibitively long period of time for most mothers of young children. Of course these pressures affect parents of all genders, but mothers are more likely to need to remain in physical proximity to their child because of breastfeeding, more likely to be the primary caregiver, and more likely to feel cultural pressure, both internalized and external, to not be away from their kids.,
A few years away from concerts and residencies might not be a problem if the new music world weren’t so focused on “young composers.” Though young composer support schemes were initially developed to allow new voices to be heard, they have now become the norm, making it harder for older composers who are not already well-established to find a way in. The focus on young composers comes with an attendant assumption that if someone hasn’t “made it” by 35, they never will (despite the existence of such well-regarded late-blooming composers as Rameau, Scarlatti, Janáček, and Scelsi). Women who have kids in their late 20s or early 30s may miss out on the key years for participating in young composer programs, only to find that just as the kids are old enough for them to participate more fully, they are excluded on the basis of age. Yet having children older doesn’t necessarily help either. The late 30s and early 40s are a notoriously difficult time for all composers – “young composer” support has dried up, while one isn’t yet considered an “established composer.” Without kids, navigating this period can be difficult and require a renewed focus on developing ones career; with kids, the obstacles may seem insurmountable.
Even when there aren’t explicit age limits, the conditions of grants, calls for scores, and awards often make it hard to return to active composition after a period of slowed productivity. I recently found myself unable to apply for a grant because it required a piece relevant to my project proposal that I had written in the past two years. In the past few years I’ve finished a 45-minute chamber opera, a violin concerto, two chamber pieces, a scientific paper, a book chapter, taught both privately and at a college, started a new research position, and had a baby (in addition to parenting a preschooler), so I haven’t been lazy—but no, I don’t have a choral piece. There’s no inherent reason composers who are most continuously prolific should be considered most worthy. We recognize the importance of Varèse, Webern, and Ustvolskaya, whose output was small, and of Crawford Seeger, Knussen, and Donatoni, who had years when they didn’t compose. Yet composers who are steadily productive are most likely to receive grants and support.
On top of these structural problems, there’s the general tendency to dismiss moms as culturally irrelevant. “Mom jeans” are the quintessential anti-fashion, and The New York Times recently told us we should be worrying about “mom hair” too. “Soccer moms” represent suburban blandness. “Explain it so your mom would understand” suggests moms are slow-witted. “Mom-approved” is safe, dull, and smug. “Even your mom would like it” describes inoffensive and insipid art. These comments are said jokingly (even by moms themselves), but hearing this language over and over again predisposes us to think of cultural contributions by mothers to be unimportant. Perhaps it’s worse than unimportant: the underlying message is that “mom” stands in direct opposition to art that is incisive, interesting, and meaningful.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are lots of steps we can all take so that motherhood doesn’t become a barrier to active participation in the new music world. In visual arts, writing, and theater, there are already some great initiatives to be more inclusive of mothers (and of parents generally), but in composition we are farther behind, perhaps because women are already such a minority, and our position can feel so precarious. Here I propose a number of measures that can be taken in order to be more inclusive. Some are easy to incorporate, others more complex. Not all are practical for every situation, but it is not necessary that everything be done in the same way, or even that every event or opportunity be mother-friendly. We simply need a variety of ways to engage with the new music world that reflects the diversity of people interested in creating, performing, and listening to new music.
If you present concerts, consider:
• Having some daytime new music concerts – not just greatest-hits programming, but with the same programs as evening concerts.
• Performing programs in both a standard, quiet concert context, and in a more noise- and wiggle-friendly context.
• Providing childcare.
• Having concerts in explicitly family-friendly locations, with conveniences such as change tables in the washrooms, “breastfeeding welcome” signs, and an area where someone could entertain children outside of the concert space.
• Performing in non-traditional venues which are more accessible to families.
• Including the timing of pieces in the program, so audience members can choose to come in or leave for one piece.
• Letting people know which concerts they could bring a baby to and stand at the back and leave if the baby starts to fuss, vs. which concerts would be disrupted if someone stepped out. (Perhaps there could be a child-friendly rating system?)
• Having intermissions long enough to feed a baby or pump milk
• Letting the audience know when the intermission will be in case someone needs to arrange to have a baby brought to them at a specific time.
• Having post-concert dinners and receptions in baby-friendly locations (e.g. in pubs or restaurants that allow children).
• Making the dress rehearsal like a performance, and open to families.
• Reserving seats in the back, the balcony, or boxes for people who may need to step in and out.
If you organize residencies, consider:
• Allowing people to attend residencies for shorter periods of time – perhaps in one week increments, or even for just a few days at a time.
• Allowing the possibility of coming back for several short residency periods rather than one long one.
• Allowing families to stay at residencies.
• Providing childcare. This could be provided on-site, or perhaps the residency could team up with nearby summer camps.
• Providing stipends for babysitters, either at the residency, or to help with the costs of leaving children at home with other family members or friends.
• Reserving some spots specifically for people who are using the residency to refocus on their work after some time away.
If you run a funding organization or hold a call for scores, consider:
• Not seeing gaps in a resume as an inherent negative, and/or giving people the opportunity to account for gaps.
• Eliminating age restrictions. (Experience restrictions – e.g. limiting a grant/award/performance to someone who is still studying, or hasn’t had any performances by major ensembles – can be a more equitable way of allowing new voices to be heard.)
• Searching for under-heard voices, including but not limited to young voices.
• Giving grants specifically to people who are returning to composing after a gap. (Re-emerging composer awards?)
• Eliminating or lengthening time limits for the composition dates of pieces, or giving the applicant the opportunity to explain if they don’t have a relevant piece that has been composed recently enough.
• Including stipends to pay for babysitters as an eligible expense. (Ideally these should be granted once the award is already decided, so the additional expense is not held against the applicant).
• Accepting high-quality computer generated sound files, since returning composers may not have access to good performances.
• Explicitly recognizing the need for support after gaps, rather than consciously or unconsciously writing off composers who have taken time away.
All of us in the new music community, consider:
• Asking parents of all genders about their work AND about their children. (Don’t just ask men about their work, and just ask women about their children. This still happens way too often!)
• Continuing to invite your parent friends to do things – to attend concerts, to write pieces. Let them tell you if now isn’t the right time – they’ll appreciate being asked!
• Writing pieces that can accommodate audiences which include families.
• Asking about (and creating) provisions for children and families, whether or not you are a mother (or even a parent). Especially in fields which are still male dominated, like composition, it would be nice if the people with more social power were advocating for change in the direction of family-friendliness!
• Lobbying for increased support for parents, including paid maternity leave and subsidized high-quality childcare.
• Lobbying for fair pay for artists.
Even if these changes would only help mothers, that would be reason enough to make them. But in fact they will help many participate more actively in the new music world: fathers, caregivers of all sorts, composers who have taken time out for any reason, and composers with any sort of non-traditional career trajectory. Even composers with a more traditional trajectory may appreciate having more options for how they can participate in new music, without feeling like if they take some time off or try something differently they will lose their career. Some of these ideas may even help the music itself, as we come up with new solutions and find ways to facilitate the expression of new kinds of voices and ideas.
More than any specific structural change we can make, however, I’d suggest that the most important thing we can do is move away from seeing motherhood as something inherently “negative for” or “in competition with” the creation of music. The difficulties are obvious: increased time pressure, lack of sleep, fragmented concentration, added expense. But parenthood also offers an amazing chance for a change of perspective, the development of new skills, and a refocusing on what is most important.
Can the selflessness developed during late nights with sleepless babies help us put self aside as we follow our music in unexpected directions? Might learning to trust in the process even when the immediate results are unclear—as we do when gently modeling behavior we want but don’t yet see in our toddlers—help us trust the process in writing music at the boundaries of what we can imagine? Do the communication skills learned in speaking gently, patiently, and lovingly with our kids (even when we’re feeling the exact opposite) help in difficult rehearsal situations? Can time away be seen as offering a valuable change of perspective, rather than only as a distraction or obstacle to composition? Can increased demands on our time encourage us to prioritize, and make room for the projects that are most important to us? If we decide to create child-friendly art, could the limitations imposed by trying to make music that is impervious to interruptions or that takes place in flexible child-friendly venues open our minds to new kinds of musical ideas? Might struggling to maintain the place of music in our lives lead us to value it even more?
Of course I don’t mean to suggest that one needs to be a mother (or parent) to experience growth and development as a composer! But I do suggest that there are as many ways of being a composer as there are people committed to the world of new music. Let’s value the many, varied paths people follow, and instead of intentionally or unintentionally keeping people out, think of how we can make room for all who want to contribute.
1. This was back in the day when tuition was cheap and scholarships were more widely available: I know that even this step is unavailable to many now.
2. Ellen McSweeney has also written about these difficulties from a performer’s perspective.
3. Of course, not all birth-giving parents identify as women or mothers, not all mothers have given birth, not all birth-giving mothers breastfeed, and not all primary caregivers are mothers or women. But I do think there is a specific way that the challenges of being a female composer in a still male-dominated field interact with the challenges of being a parent and an artist. I write from my own experience, but recognize that there are many other ways that being a composer and becoming a parent may interact.
4. See Bill Doerrfeld, “Ageism in Composer Opportunities” (NewMusicBox, published June 5, 2013).
5. Mothers aren’t the only composers negatively affected by age limits. A removal of age limits would help anyone with a less traditional trajectory.
6. Aaron Gervais has some great reflections on making the transition out of being a young composer.
7. See Bee Shapiro, “Have ‘Mom Hair’? Here’s How to Fix It” (The New York Times, published June 21, 2016).
8. Parents in the Performing Arts and The Sustainable Arts Foundation are two such initiatives.
9. The author would like to thank Kala Pierson for discussions which led to this article
Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, composer Emily Doolittle was educated at Dalhousie University, Indiana University, the Koninklijk Conservatorium, and Princeton. From 2008-2015 she was on the faculty of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. She now lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where she is an Athenaeum Research Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Doolittle has been commissioned by such ensembles as Orchestre Métropolitain, Tafelmusik, Symphony Nova Scotia, the Paragon Ensemble, and Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal, and supported by the Sorel Organization, the Hinrichsen Foundation, Opera America, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Fulbright Foundation, among others. Her chamber music CD all spring was released on the Naxos distributed Composers Concordance Label in 2015.